The Etiology of Animal Abuse

Although "bad seed" interpretations of youth violence have waxed and waned throughout history (Garbarino, 1999; Kellerman, 1999), it is clear that attention to the family, social, and community contexts of children’s lives is critical for understanding violent behavior. This holds true for the special case of animal abuse. As Widom (1989) has demonstrated, a history of child abuse and neglect places individuals at risk for later delinquency, adult criminal offending, and violent criminal activity. This section addresses factors in children’s lives that have been associated with increased levels of animal abuse. The factors range from negative but relatively normative experiences (corporal punishment) to potentially more devastating circumstances (physical abuse, sexual abuse, and domestic violence).

Corporal Punishment

Evidence continues to mount on the ineffectiveness and deleterious nature of corporal punishment as a child-rearing technique (Straus, 1991). Two recent studies link this evidence to animal abuse. In a survey of 267 undergraduates, 68.4 percent of whom were women, Flynn (1999a) asked participants about their history of abusing animals (e.g., hurting, torturing, or killing pets or stray animals; sex acts with animals). Students also responded to items assessing attitudes toward spanking and husband-on-wife abuse. In all, 34.5 percent of the men and 9.3 percent of the women reported at least one childhood incident of animal abuse. These respondents (both men and women) were significantly more likely to endorse the use of corporal punishment and to approve of a husband slapping his wife. Although these findings do not establish a direct link between abusing animals and spanking children or slapping wives, they do suggest an association between animal abuse and accepting attitudes toward these activities.

In a followup report with this same sample of undergraduates, Flynn (1999b) found that, for men, perpetrating animal abuse was positively correlated with the frequency of their father’s use of corporal punishment (spanking, slapping, or hitting) in adolescence. Self-reports of animal abuse by men experiencing paternal corporal punishment in adolescence were 2.4 times higher than for men who were not physically disciplined (57.1 percent and 23.1 percent, respectively, p<0.005).

Physical Abuse

Research specifically designed to assess the relation between animal abuse and child maltreatment is meager yet compelling in its implications. For example, a 1983 study by DeViney, Dickert, and Lockwood of 53 New Jersey families that met State criteria for substantiated child abuse and neglect and had pets in their homes revealed that in 60 percent of these families, pets were also abused or neglected. Animal abuse was significantly higher (88 percent) in families where child physical abuse was present than in families where other forms of child maltreatment (e.g., sexual abuse) occurred (34 percent). One or both parents and their children were responsible for abusing the families’ pets.

Sexual Abuse

Friedrich et al. (1992) compared a nonabused sample of 880 children ages 2–12 with 276 children in the same age range who had been sexually abused in the past 12 months. Based on a reexamination of data from this study, Friedrich (personal communication, April 1992) provided information on cruelty to animals derived from the nonperpetrating caretakers’ CBC reports on children. As shown in figure 6, children with a history of sexual abuse were significantly (p<0.001) more likely to have been cruel to animals than children in the nonabused group. A study of 499 seriously mentally ill 5- to 18-year-olds hospitalized at a tertiary care psychiatric facility (McClellan et al., 1995) also found cruelty to animals to be more prevalent among patients who had been sexually abused than among those who had not been sexually abused (p=0.004).

One form of cruelty to animals that has received scant attention in the literature is the sexual abuse of animals, or bestiality. Bestiality may range from touching or fondling the genitals of animals to sexual intercourse and violent sexual abuse. Some species of animals may be seriously injured or die as a result of the abuse inflicted (e.g., penetration that damages internal organs). Beirne (1997) provided an excellent theoretical overview of this issue, but empirical studies, especially with children, are rare (e.g., see case study by Wiegand, Schmidt, and Kleiber, 1999). Lane (1997) noted that juvenile sex offending may include bestiality, sometimes combined with other violent behavior toward animals. Adolescent sexual offenders may also use threats of harm to pets as a way of gaining compliance from their human victims (Kaufman, Hilliker, and Daleiden, 1996). In the study of sexual homicide perpetrators cited earlier (Ressler, Burgess, and Douglas, 1988), 40 percent of the men who said they had been sexually abused in childhood or adolescence reported having sexual contact with animals. Itzin (1998) reported anecdotal evidence of bestiality being forced on children who also were sexually abused and involved in the production of child pornography.

Although it is difficult to obtain information about sexual behavior in children and adolescents, especially sexual behavior with animals, Friedrich (1997) provided some information on this issue with data from his Child Sexual Behavior Inventory (CSBI). Caregivers of 1,114 children ages 2–12 who had not been abused and caregivers of 512 sexually abused children in the same age range reported on a variety of sexual or sexualized behaviors in the children, including whether the child "touches animals’ sex parts." (Note: The reporting caregivers of the sexually abused children were not the perpetrators of the abuse.) The children were divided into three age groups: ages 2–5, 6–9, and 10–12. The queried behavior was relatively infrequent, but it was clear that in the two older groups, sexually abused children were more likely to display the behavior than nonabused children (see figure 7). Although the behavior appears to decline among sexually abused 10- to 12-year-olds, one might speculate that the decrease is accounted for, in part, by a greater secretiveness in older children in acting out sexually with animals. The decrease may also be related to older children’s transferring their inappropriate sexual activity from animal to human victims.

Further evidence for the relation between sexual abuse victimization and bestiality is provided by Wherry and colleagues (1995). They administered the CSBI to caretakers of 24 boys ages 6–12 who were psychiatric inpatients. Eight of these boys had been sexually abused. "Touches animals’ sex parts" was reported for 50 percent of abused boys but none of nonabused boys (p<0.01).

Domestic Violence

Animals may also be abused in the context of family violence between intimate adult partners. Ascione (1998) reported an interview study of 38 women who were battered and had sought shelter. Fifty-eight percent of the women had children and 74 percent had pets. When asked whether their adult partner had ever threatened or actually hurt or killed one or more of their pets, 71 percent of women with pets responded "yes." Thirty-two percent of women with children reported that their children had hurt or killed one or more family pets. In a replication study of 100 women who were battered and had entered a shelter and a comparison group of 117 nonbattered women, all of whom had pets, Ascione (2000b) found that 54 percent of the battered women compared with 5 percent of the nonbattered women reported that their partner had hurt or killed pets (see figure 8). Children’s exposure to this animal abuse was reported by 62 percent of the battered women. Nearly one in four of the battered women reported that concern for their pets’ welfare had prevented them from seeking shelter sooner.6

Flynn (2000) reported similar findings in a study of 43 women with pets who had entered a South Carolina domestic violence shelter. (Twenty-eight of the women were accompanied by children.) Of these 43 women, 46.5 percent reported threats to (n=9) or harm of (n=11) their pets. Although only 7 percent of children were reported to be cruel to animals, 33.3 percent of women whose pets were abused reported that their children had also been abused. Of the women whose pets were not abused, 15.8 percent reported child abuse. (The figure was 10.5 percent for women with no pets.)

These studies make it clear that in families challenged by child maltreatment and domestic violence, there is increased opportunity for children to be exposed to the abuse of animals. Even if adult family members do not abuse animals, some children may express the pain of their own victimization by abusing vulnerable family pets. Just as researchers are beginning to understand the overlap between child abuse and neglect and domestic violence between intimate adult partners (Ross, 1996), they must now consider the overlap of these forms of abuse with animal maltreatment (see figure 9).


Figure 6: Percentage of Youth Ages 2–12 Reported by Caregivers To Have Been Cruel to Animals, by Offender's Gender and History of Sexual Abuse
Figure 6: Bar graph showing percentage of youth ages 2 to 12 reported by caregivers to have been cruel to animals, by offender's gender and history of sexual abuse.

Source: Friedrich, W.N., personal communication, April 1992.


Figure 7: Percentage of Youth Ages 2–12 Reported by Caregivers To Have Sexually Abused Animals, by Offender's Age, Gender, and Victimization Status
Figure 7: Line graph showing percentage of youth ages 2 to 12 reported by caregivers to have sexually abused animals, by offender's age, gender, and victimization status.

Source: Friedrich, W.N. 1997. Child Sexual Behavior Inventory: Professional Manual. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.


Figure 8: Percentage of Women Who Reported That Their Domestic Partners Hurt or Killed Pets, by Reporter's History of Domestic Abuse
Figure 8: Bar graph showing percentage of woman who reported that their domestic partners hurt or killed pets, by reporter's history of domestic abuse.

Source: Ascione, F.R. 2000b. What veterinarians need to know about the link between animal abuse and interpersonal violence. Proceedings of the 137th Annual Meeting of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Salt Lake City, UT, July 25, 2000 (CD–ROM records #316–317).


Figure 9: Interconnectedness of Different Types of Abuse
Figure 9: Venn diagram representing the links between animal abuse, child abuse and neglect, and domestic violence.

Source: Ascione, F.R., and Arkow, P., eds. 1999. Child Abuse, Domestic Violence, and Animal Abuse: Linking the Circles of Compassion for Prevention and Intervention. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.


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Animal Abuse and Youth Violence Juvenile Justice Bulletin September 2001